Concluding thoughts ...

As indicated in the last blog ‘Moving Ahead to the Final Goals’ http://www.andeanmedicine.net/blog/moving-ahead-final-goals-1532718988 the second phase of the project, centring on the survey of contemporary indigenous communities in Ecuador, is now approaching an end. But as I prepare to leave Ecuador to return to York in the autumn, and move towards developing models transferable into contemporary global scenarios, I don’t want to leave the time I have spent here working with the indigenous communities of the Sierra regions without saying something about what I have learned myself from these wonderful people.
When I started this work, I had certainly had contact with indigenous Andeans in a number of ways, and several years back I had lived for two periods of time with another community in the Northern Sierra, where my interest in Traditional Medicine first began. However, the survey phase of MEDICINE project has brought me into a closer sustained contact and has greatly served to broaden and deepen my awareness and understanding of their lives, beliefs and the ways their societies function.

Wasalata, Salasaka

Throughout the course of writing these blogs, which record in an informal way my impressions at different stages of the survey work, I have sought to highlight what life means for these people. Also how their historical experiences of conquest by an alien culture and its belief systems and social structures have impacted upon them. As I note in ‘Living off the Land’ http://www.andeanmedicine.net/blog/living-land-1518189928 it is clear that the indigenous communities and lands you see now are survivals from the essentially apartheid system imposed by the Spanish in the years immediately following the conquest by them in 1534 (in Ecuador) when two parallel systems of a Republica de Los Españoles and Republica de los Indios were established, to allow for the convenient control, taxation and evangelisation of the subjugated peoples. Until relatively recent years this has essentially remained the same and there pervades a sense of continuing social exclusion. Peoples like the Salasaka, in finding themselves so socially and economically marginalised, were nevertheless able to maintain their distinct sense of a separate identity which has in many ways served to protect them from cultural annihilation, until now.

Salasaka

The biggest threat to indigenous culture has to be the threat that all traditional cultures around the world now face: the rapid, relentless pace of modernisation and increasing technologizing of our world. ‘Identity’ – that core and critical sense of who you are and what that means – which until now has been drawn from a sense of being ethnically indigenous – Runa – a Kichwa speaker who dresses with the distinctive clothing of the community and who observes their customs and practices – has now become hijacked by the multi-media modern world, wherein many younger people abandon the customs of their communities and style themselves according to universal global fashion dictates, celebrity cultures and so on.

Salasaka weaver

Many older respondents in the survey lamented this tendency in the younger generation to no longer care what it means to be indigenous. That said, however, there is also hope, in a clear counter trend, in that some younger indigenous people are actively looking to return to their traditional ethnic and cultural roots, even if they are unclear about much of what the ancestral corpus of beliefs means. One young man aged 21, who was well educated to college level, had changed his name to a Kichwa name and dressed in Salasaka style as his family, rejected any Christian belief system and actively endorsed the whole range of Andean health beliefs, beliefs in spirits and the apus, and associated rituals and practices, although manifestly needing a better understanding of what these and their significance were. This is something I have seen in other indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Sierra regions. There is a will to return to what is perceived as being an ‘authentic’ identity separate from that widely visible in the modern world they are embedded in. But importantly, they are nevertheless also very technologically literate and competent, which means that they have the skills to participate in that world and not be marginalised by the dominant elite and ruling systems in the way they have been until recent years. Better access to better education and a more equitable education that includes, for example, histories written from indigenous and not colonial perspectives and which respects indigenous ways of ‘knowing’ and related practices, will eventually facilitate the development of an educated class of younger indigenous people who can start to participate in a national policy making agenda more meaningful to them and their communities.

Salasaka

The second biggest threat to their cultural integrity is that presented by the growing scale of international tourism. That which has in recent years provided an important alternative source of income, and which sustains peoples like the Salasaka in their weaving of elaborate textiles to be sold in the market places, now provides a destructive driver of its own. There is a danger that customs and practices, rituals and economic activities which were once a core part of communities like these become merely commodities to be ‘packaged up’ for sale to the thousands of visitors who seek out ‘traditional experiences’. Indigenous medicine, both from the Amazon and the Andes, has become a huge attraction for people across the globe seeking ‘alternative experiences’ at the hands of local shamans ('Ayahuasca tourism'). These are real problems which must be addressed in order to balance the income needs of communities with the critical importance of maintaining their independence and integrity. If sufficiently and sensitively managed, tourism will continue to be a good source of alternative income for them as well as enriching and educating the many visitors from over the world.

About this blog entry

This blog entry was posted on Monday 30th July 2018.
elizabeth.currie@york.ac.uk's picture
Dr Elizabeth Currie

Dr Elizabeth Currie is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Experienced Researcher and Global Fellow at the Department of Archaeology, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Health Sciences, University of York.

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